Edzard Ernst is today well known in scientific circles as a (now-retired) leading academic debunker of alternative medicine. But as revealed in his new memoir, A Scientist in Wonderland: A Memoir of Searching for Truth and Finding Trouble, he didn’t always seem to be destined for his role as a leading celebrity sceptic. He was raised in postwar Germany, which considered alternative medicine totally normal. He was a jazz-loving boozehound who shared the rebellious outlook of much of a generation that felt its elders were morally compromised by their role in the Third Reich. Originally, he had no particular academic bent and scraped into medical school via a convoluted route.
After finishing medical school, his first job as a doctor was at a homeopathic hospital, which he found a pleasant, if eccentric, posting. Almost accidentally, after a number of clinical and scientific posts, he became a professor at the prestigious medical faculty of the University of Vienna. But after becoming alienated by the university’s culture of backbiting and corruption, he upped sticks and took the seemingly career-suicidal step of taking up the newly created position of chair of complementary medicine at the less-than-prestigious University of Exeter in 1993.
His earlier experiences meant he was not necessarily hostile to complementary (aka alternative) therapy, but while at Exeter he applied his hard-won scientific rigour to this previously under-examined area. His first glimmer of scientific scepticism came while he was studying psychology in the Freudian-influenced and pseudoscientific atmosphere of the 1970s. However, it was his later work as a research scientist that convinced him of the need for scientific honesty in evaluating medical treatments. And while he did discover some things that alternative practitioners might have liked – such as evidence for the safety of acupuncture and the efficacy of some herbal remedies – the vast bulk of his findings suggested that most alternative treatments were no better than placebos. What’s more, he found that some popular alternative treatments were actively dangerous: for instance, the spinal manipulation involved in chiropracty had led to a number of strokes. His book does a good job of giving an overview of his research, as well as underlining the importance of the scientific method more broadly.